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Nurkić Hits Deciding Shots as Blazers Roll Over Thunder

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Russell Westbrook went crazy and the game was close, but Portland pulled out a secret weapon in the closing minute.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Folks, we have a treat for you tonight. Instead of the usual recap of the Portland Trail Blazers’ 126-121 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, we’re presenting something different: a dialogue between me and podcast co-host Dan Marang running down the action and our impressions of it. Enjoy!

Dave: So Dan, could that have been any MORE thrilling? The Blazers looked like they won and lost this game about a dozen times over. That’s typical Portland stuff but it never gets old. As long as they win, that is. When they lose it’s a different matter, but hey, score...board! Score...board! What were the top 2-3 things you noticed from the evening?

Dan: In true Dave Deckard fashion I’m going with the unusual imagery here that makes way more sense in the long run. I’ve watched about 5 episodes of Dragonball Z in my life, and every one of them has at least one scene where the good guy and the bad guy square off and fire giant beams of energy at each other while yelling into nowhere. Eventually one gives in and gets blown up. Each quarter was like that tonight.

The guy for OKC was clearly Russell Westbrook, and like the previous match up he was unstoppable through three quarters. Portland offered up a buffet of awesomeness, headlined by an aggressive Allen Crabbe. He took and hit nearly everything, and his production was matched by bigs Meyers Leonard and Noah Vonleh. It was a case of diversified attack vs. consistent pounding of the Westbrook-ram.

Dave: I was going to go with the wrestling analogy here. One of the cardinal rules of pro wrestling is that you don’t block or defend other people’s moves. You can reverse them into your own offense, but you never stop the other guy because it makes both of you look weaker than if everybody’s offense hits. With limited spells of decent defense, that’s pretty much how the Blazers and Thunder approached this game. Using your set-up, Westbrook was Andre the Giant and the Blazers were the 15 other guys all trying to stop him.

We shouldn’t skate over the fact that the players you mentioned as key for the most part come off the bench. It felt like bench production was critical to Portland’s success tonight. Without the points produced by the reserves, this would have been a 12-point loss. We would have seen two Dragonball Z quarters and two quarters of soggy, leftover ramen on a stick.

Dan: Just yesterday we were discussing who the Blazers should keep/not keep and the three most discussed; Crabbe, Leonard, and Vonleh were the biggest contributors tonight. Each ‘won’ their matchup handily, not only that they won AND they dropped 46 points. It’s one thing to show up more so than usual, it’s another matter entirely to make an impact across 48 minutes. I asked you, what is Vonleh’s skill set, what does he bring nightly? Well, if tonight is any indication he’s a heck of a drop off option for Jusuf Nurkic.

Dave: The Nurkić reference is like tossing a slow pitch down the pipe. If people were crazy about him before, they’re going to go bonkers now. Forget his 17 points and 8 rebounds. Did you see how the Blazers played through him on the final, critical possessions? I’m fairly sure they were intending to use him as a fulcrum to get the ball to any of their usual scorers but he ended up single-covered and making shots himself. As I said on Twitter, I don’t think we’ve seen a Portland center handle the ball on game-deciding possessions since 1995, let alone convert shots. Nurkić drew enough attention to keep the guards in one-on-one coverage, then they returned the favor. That won Portland the game. Do you see any end to Nurkomania soon? What would a balanced perspective on his game tonight look like?

Dan: Anyone who knows me on any level knows that I’m a sucker for the #feetwerk. When you’ve got a big playing with 5 fouls and he catches the ball on the block with a point guard playing behind him and not only does he not hesitate, but he converts a beautiful drop step spin-layup in the clutch, my living room looked like B-reel footage of the Beatles landing in New York in ‘68. Lots of screaming and nonsensical sentence fragments. But the big fella wasn’t done there.

I’m not sure if the play was drawn up for him or not, but to catch that pass in the high post with a wide open (and scorching hot) Allen Crabbe in the corner, Nurkić again goes to the drop step (on the other side?!?!) and softly scoops it from 12-feet. Cue the endless screaming again.

[Note: Both of these plays happened within the final minute of a game with the score within 2 points.]

Nurkomania is rolling and with good reason- he’s doing everything he needs to do and then some. I’ve mentioned probably a dozen times now how different it is with Nurkić rolling to the rim than Plumlee. Defenses have to honor him, and that shifts opponents around. Defensively he’s a big body, he’s blocking shots and gobbling up rebounds. There’s no reason he can’t sustain this level of play, and there’s certainly hope that his ceiling is even higher than we initially anticipated. Expecting 18/10/2 from Nurkić at his peak doesn’t seem remotely out of the question and fans should certainly be excited for that.

Dave: We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Westbrook’s stat line: 58 points, 21-39 from the field, 9 assists. It doesn’t get any better than that. Yet the Blazers have seemed content to watch the MVP score bundles if they can walk away with the win. That can’t be all intentional though, can it? Westbrook got really good looks in the closing possessions of the game. He just missed them. Granted, they were longer distance than the shots that gave him 58. He pounded the Blazers at the rim and from mid-range most of the game but he shot deep late. Perhaps that means Portland’s defense did work a little? But honestly, do you think the defense played a big role in this win or was it just Russ getting tired/regressing to the mean?

Dan: Yes. That’s the best I’ve got for you. There were certainly some great individual defensive plays by the Blazers. Al-Farouq Aminu and Maurice Harkless had some spectacular blocks and Nurkic forced Westbrook off his straight line drives late, but for the second game in a row Westbrook missed a ton of WIDE open looks down the stretch. More than anything though, the difference in this game felt like Portland’s ability to take care of the ball and the Thunder treating it like a week old diaper.

Dave: Dipped in lard?

Dan: ...yes. And, yuck. Speaking of lard, Nurkić seems to have shaken a few pounds off since his arrival in Portland. This is the second game in a row where he’s grabbed the rebound and sprinted off like the Bosnian Boogie Cousins leading the break. As much as folks didn’t expect his passing, I don’t think anyone saw a 300-pounder leading the break anytime soon.

Dave: Well, it’s better than Aminu doing it. But this was also a team thing tonight. It seemed like everything the Thunder did, the Blazers did just a little bit better. OKC shot 51.8% from the field, Portland shot 55.3%. From the arc it was 40% to 47.8%. Everything else except fast break points (where Portland got creamed 22-8) was fairly close. Now, if you look at those defensive numbers in a loss, you’re screaming bloody murder. “52%??? Geez! How do they ever expect to win?!?” But since they did win, no harm, no foul? I mean, if you’re going to shoot 55% from the field, how can we complain about you?

I guess I kind of will anyway. This game was frustrating in a sense, as neither team seemed particularly interested in defending anyone. The Blazers took control of the paint for a while but then gave it right back with interest. Still, people are going to say that the Blazers are surging again. This is a quality win, but is it surge-worthy? Or better put, will this mini-surge end up meaning anything even if it turns into a maxi-surge?

Dan: The Blazers played 9 guys tonight and 7 of them scored in double figures, three of them with 20+ points. If you lose with that kind of production you deserve whatever screaming fit comes your way. This is the 4th time the Blazers have won three games in a row this season. We’ve seen “surges” before. Not one of them turned into a fourth consecutive win.

Dave: The next game is the Sixers and it’s Blazer’s Edge Night. That fourth win is coming.

Dan: That’s more than a fair point. We’ve remarked multiple times how if the Blazers play to 75 percent of their potential, they’re better than most teams just by pure offensive talent alone. For a perfect example, look at OKC. They have 1 12 guys who can create offense for them. The Blazers have two guys. When Portland adds a bevy of other scorers they drop nearly 130 points. The problem lies with the Blazers finding ways to play below 75 percent for long stretches that inevitably doom them. It’s certainly fun to get caught up in the closing stretch of the season, and while the 76ers present more than an ample opportunity to make it four in a row, this schedule is absolutely brutal going forward (in terms of game frequency).

Dave: OK, to avoid anticipating potential coming losses, let’s close this with a little word association. I’m going to throw out something, you give me an instant response in 1-3 words tops.

Let’s start with...Portland bench, 18-25, 8-12 from distance, 49 points.

Dan: Ridiculous and unexpected.

Dave: Westbrook tops 50 versus the Blazers AGAIN.

Dan: Russ-diculous and ehhhh expected. (4 I cheated)

Dave: Meyers Leonard’s closing stretch with Nurk on the team now.

Dan: Make or Break-time.

Dave: Frickin’ hypens. Portland’s chances of making the playoffs.

Dan: Growing, sadly.

Dave: Allen Crabbe’s chances of repeating tonight’s performance consistently.

Dan: Rests with him.

Dave: Last one. Dirk Nowitzki, 30,000 points.

Dan: Re-Dirk-ulous and awesome.

Dave: Because you re-used that pun, your punishment is to do one more. Jusuf Nurkić, go-to guy.

Dan: Well within reason. (I’ll own that pun ‘till death)

That’s it, folks! Hope you enjoyed the win and the different-style recap! For more of Dan and Dave, check out the Blazer’s Edge Podcast every week. For more information and highlights, here are some relevant links.

Boxscore

Video Recap

Welcome to Loud City will love Russ but hate that final score.

The next time the Trail Blazers play will be Blazer’s Edge Night, where 2000 youth and children from the Portland area will descend on the Moda Center to see the Blazers take on the Philadelphia 76’ers because you Blazer’s Edge readers donated tickets for them. Over the last few days the leaders of those groups have been picking up their tickets and they’re getting excited already. Thursday night will rock! Tune in here for a recap of not just the game, but all the festivities. As always, thank you for making this happen.

—Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @Blazersedge / @DaveDeckard